“When you’re writing a longer piece, you lose more and more possibilities the more that you write.”
Each month we celebrate an Australian debut with the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For September, that debut is Yumna Kassab’s short story collection The House of Youssef, out now from Giramondo.
Set in Western Sydney, Yumna’s stories explore the lives of Lebanese migrants who have settled in the area, circling around themes of isolation, family, community, and nostalgia. Our First Book Club host Ellen Cregan asked Yumna a few questions about reading, writing and the editing process.
Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’.
Read Ellen Cregan’s review of The House of Youssef in our September Books Roundup.
Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!
Meaghan Dew: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew, and today I’ll be bringing you our September First Book Club recording. Our September First Book Club title was Yumna Kassab’s The House of Youssef, a short story collection published by Giramondo last month. Set in Western Sydney, the stories explores the lives of Lebanese migrants who settled in the area, circling around themes of isolation, family, community and nostalgia. Our First Book Club coordinator Ellen Cregan asked Yumna a few questions.
Ellen Cregan: Welcome to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. My name is Ellen and I’m Kill Your Darlings First Book Club host. Today I have with me on the line, Yumna Kassab, author of The House of Youssef, which is a wonderful collection of short fiction from Giramondo. We’re going to begin with a reading from the book so you can all get a sense of what it’s like.
Yumna Kassab: Okay, so, ‘Sports for Girls’.
When Mayada was seven, her parents enrolled her in Little Athletics. Um Abdullah had seen on TV that it was good for girls to do sports: it kept them away from boys, it taught them to be strong, it kept them healthy. The news was talking about older girls, ones in their teens, but it was never too early to begin teaching her daughter.
The other girls ran in briefs and a crop top. Mayada wore a T-shirt and shorts. All the girls asked why she wore a shirt and shorts. When she was older, she would revisit this memory. She would laugh casually, she would make a joke, she would be okay with the question. But at seven, all she could think was: they’re in briefs, why aren’t I? Her mother said, that’s the way it is, the same way the sky is blue and you could count on the sun rising each day.
In her races, Mayada would come last or second last. She wasn’t fast enough to be first but although she could do better than second last, the girls liked her better if she let them beat her. They made room for her to join their crowd at the end of the race, they pretended not to notice her shorts.
She only did Little Athletics one season. Her parents could not afford to send them both to a sport and Abdullah needed a sport as a boy. Later when there was money, they could put Mayada in athletics or tennis. There was gymnastics but they worried about her doing the splits. Um Abdullah changed the channel whenever there were female athletes on. She didn’t want Mayada getting ideas and those women didn’t look like women.
Each night, Um Abdullah worried about Mayada. She worried about her daughter growing strong but she didn’t want her to act like a man with arms like a wrestler and without a care about how she looked. The mothers she knew worried the same thoughts. At least Mayada got to do Little Athletics. The other girls didn’t even get that. She would find her something to fill her time, she would find her something, she would, she would…once there was money…but that was a problem for another day.
EC: Thank you so much for that. So, opening question: in a few short sentences, what is The House of Youssef about?
YK: So The House of Youssef is about families and communities and specifically the Lebanese families in Western Sydney, and sort of looking at the different generations, especially the relationship between parents and their children, and then also relationships within a family, sometimes between the husband and wife; sometimes between siblings. It’s very much, I think the stories of families and their communities.
EC: On the topic of family, there’s a lot of, sort of, ongoing family stories, and family stories from the past in the book. How did you approach writing about family stories and kind of the way they mythologised through the generations?
YK: Well, I think it happened in a very organic way. I think when I actually started out writing the stories that are in my land, I wasn’t actually looking to write a short story collection. I wrote ‘Cigarettes and Smoke’, and I thought you know, it’s an okay story, and I just kind of left it, and then over the next couple of weeks, I kept writing stories and I sort of realised – and it took me a while to sort of realise – after about 10 or 20 stories that they are very much connected by this place that I sort of live. And even ‘The House of Youssef’ stories – they originally started as part of ‘Motherland’, so I wrote the first house of use of one and that was going to be part of ‘Motherland’. And then I kept going back, so that one family, and it wasn’t until I sort of finished writing all those short stories, and I sort of moved on with my writing, that I went back and looked at them and sort of realised that they’re very much about families and communities and relationships and things like that. So it wasn’t like I’ve actually gone in, and said: ‘I’m going to write about this thing.” It kind of happened, and then I kind of reflected on it, I guess.
EC: I love that when fiction kind of has this sneaky pull that it brings authors back and kind of reveals itself rather than being a really conscious thing.
YK: Yeah, it’s a very – I think it’s a very – a lot of this is very accidental and I think with also a lot of my other writing, accidental is probably not the best word. These shifts happen, and then you look back on it and you’re like: “Oh okay, that was a pretty major change for me, and I think before then, I had never really thought to write very realistic story set in the place that I’d lived, and there were a couple of things that happened around the time that I wrote ‘Cigarettes and Smoke’, and which weren’t really obvious to me. One was that I took up photography and I was trying to take photos of very everyday things, and another thing which seems like a bit of a funny one is, there was the Western Sydney Wanderers, which was a team that was established about two or three years before I wrote that story, and I think before then, a lot of people in the Western Sydney community didn’t really own that they were actually from there. It was kind of a thing that you just said: “Well, I’m actually from Sydney”; you didn’t really say that you actually specifically from there, and I think with the sort of community around that club and the game and everything, it really changed how I saw communities actually.
EC: That’s really interesting, and I loved the photography analogy there, because they’re really photographic short stories. Some of them are just – some of them are quite brief and it is really like a snapshot of someone’s life in a very, you know, quick but detailed way, I suppose.
YK: Yeah, I think I often think about what are, you know, what’s the source of inspiration? Or what I might actually find particularly inspiring, and I’ve always really loved art, and I specifically like going back and visiting the same art works over and over, and there are certain galleries that I’ve been going to for a very long time, and I’ll often go to the same paintings. And I think with those stories, I was trying to capture just a very specific scene. I didn’t – I didn’t really particularly care what happened before and after, it was just about trying to detail it, and just have the – I suppose the right details, the you know, what was necessary, and then just to leave off anything that I thought was unnecessary.
EC: Yeah totally. So there are a lot of stories in the book and throughout the book that kind of look at ideas of nostalgia and there is a sense of melancholy to some of these stories. Do you find nostalgia to be an inherently sad thing, whether it is, you know, sad but lots of other things, but inherently sad?
YK: Not really. I think it’s at any point where a person actually started to think about the past, or started to think about their life, or even the future, I think nostalgia starts to coming in to it. It wasn’t until very recently, and I mean by recently I mean last week, I was speaking to a colleague who just read the stories, and he was talking about the nostalgia. And up until then, I hadn’t really been aware of it, but now, when I think about the stories and I think about the other writing I do, it is very much a big part of the stories that I write. And I think at any point, if we’re actually going to be looking at our lives or studying our relationships with people and our environment or whatever, I think sometimes the eye does go backwards and sometimes there are good things there, sometimes are sad things there, but I don’t think it has to be a sad thing.
EC: Yeah definitely. I just want to go back to the structure of the book, which we sort of talked about before. So there are distinct sections to this book and the middle which I asked you to read from before as a kind of long fragmented narrative of a single family’s life. Why did you choose to structure this way, or did it just happen organically?
YK: Yeah, I would say it was very much an organic process. I don’t think I ever really written with a plan. I sometimes do if I’m writing in nonfiction, or have an idea and write according to a particular structure, but with fiction and for all the time that I’ve been writing fiction, I think I’ve always just tried to explore a specific idea and also like to innovate and I suppose, experiment and try different things. And so, I think in terms of the structure itself, when I actually first met up with the Giramondo people, I’d actually sent them the series that was ‘Motherland’. And I think they – ‘Motherland’ is probably around 100 pages, maybe just a little bit over 100 pages, and they said to me: “Um, they’re, they’re kind of short by themselves to be a book, do you have anything else?” and so I said, well you know, kind of written also this series about this family, and maybe there’s also ‘Homing’, there’s just you know, it’s a monologue, this older guy talking about his life, have a bit of a look, and it was actually them who kind of suggested putting them into a book, and then when they actually said let’s put those three together, I’m like hang on, there’s actually one more; it’s still sitting in a drawer, I haven’t tucked it up, but I really think if ‘Homing’ is going to go with the other two, with ‘Houses of Youssef’ and ‘Motherland’, ‘Darkness Spea’ should actually be – it kind of belongs there as well.
EC: Yeah, it’s really great hearing how that editorial process kind of gets everything together and the collaboration as well.
YK: Yeah, I think it’s – I think I’ve always sort of worried that it’s sort of, maybe like a, you know, people locking horns in terms of their vision for like a book and a story, but I’ve been incredibly grateful for the way that the stories have been handled, and the way the stories are actually being put together. And I think that there are quite a few things that have been suggested, even the title The House of Youssef was not originally going to be the title, but as soon as I’ve actually mentioned that, I thought well yeah, that’s actually a great idea and kind of makes sense given that it’s very much about the families and the communities and so on. So I think a lot of it is very organic, I don’t think anything else at any point was me with my little vision and saying: “These are the stories I’m gonna write, and this is how it’s going to be structured.” I think that is sort of something which is decided after everything sort of done and dusted.
EC: Because with the title The House of Youssef, my experience as a reader was really that was the section that kind of grabbed my heart, like the whole book I connected with, but that particular section, that really left me kind of a bit breathless. so I think it’s great that that became the title, because I think it’s sort of you know, it’s all hard-hitting, but that particular one family like, I don’t think I forget them very soon.
YK: No, I think the wheels kind of fell off the bus for them a little bit yeah, they had a very sort of it was a very sort of quick turn, quick very negative tone for them, and I think after during the editing of this process, I was speaking to my sister who is not so much my first reader, but my first listener. And I was talking to her about, I suppose the vision presented in the book and that it seems particularly bleak and a bit depressing and everything is kind of falling apart, and I was asking her if she had a very similar vision of the world, and I don’t think she does, and I think a lot of people would not necessarily think that that’s a very accurate portrayal of family life; they don’t have to be; it’s fiction, but yeah it’s a – I think it does kind of bring that together. There are quite a few stories in ‘The House of Youssef’ sequence that I’m particularly proud of, and I quite love, and I really like, I do – I see Mayada as the main character. I think once you start to look at the relationships between people within a family, some very interesting things actually happen.
EC: Yeah of course. So again on structure, a lot of the stories in the whole book are just a page-long or two pages long, like the one you read for us. As a writer, what do you find the benefits of short fiction and very short fiction to be?
YK: I am going to reference Stephanie Meyer here, author of ‘Twilight’. She – in one of her interviews – I really love reading from all sorts of writers – in one of her interviews, she talked about how when you’re actually writing, once you decided, say for example, your character is a brunette, she loses all her blonde redhead black hair possibilities. And I think sometimes when you’re writing a longer piece, you lose more and more possibilities the more that you write. The thing can become is very structured, and it’s almost like a never like an avalanche, and they’re just going to see out its course. While with short fiction or short pieces, there are such great possibilities I think it’s a great form to experiment and try new things, to try different structures, different ways of people speaking, which you don’t really have with longer fiction. And I think I’ve always found writing short fiction to be very very interesting; I’ve always enjoyed it the most, and so – but I think one of the things that I really like is that I can try out these different things, and that the characters or the setting or whatever it is, at the start has great possibility, which is lost in a longer piece.
EC: I totally agree. I love that when you’re reading short fiction, the point where you can imagine the life beyond the end of the story, which you don’t sometimes get with a big meaty novel, which is also wonderful, but yeah, it’s sort of nice yeah. So in the past couple of years, I’ve noticed there are many more diverse voices in Australian fiction than I have noticed before, which is refreshing and so much more interesting. Do you think that the days of the dominating Anglo-Australian suburban narrative are coming to their end?
YK: I am not entirely sure. I think there are definitely a lot more stories and not just in Australia, I think around the world; very different voices I think there have been quite a few movements and maybe social media has a big part to play in this. I remember back in the day, and I’m talking about only five or six years ago, there was a little Twitter movement about increasing the number of women that I read. I know that there are statistics which say that, say in France, the amount of fiction that translated into French is typically 30 to 40 percent – it could be higher, I can’t remember the exact numbers – while in a lot of English-speaking countries, works that are translated from other languages into English are typically 1, 2 percent – it’s quite small. And I think at the moment, not just in terms of maybe a Anglo centric view of Australia, I think we’re seeing a sort of shift towards trying to incorporate a lot more different voices, and whether it’s you know, people are reading a lot more women, they’re reading people of different backgrounds or more different religions or whatever it is, I think there are some very interesting things happening just in terms of a lot more representation in terms of different worldviews, different people, different identities.
EC: Yeah definitely. And it’s so nice, because you can’t – like fiction especially and books in general, are such a great gateway into another world. Like maybe you’ve never met someone who’s from Uganda, but you can read a book by someone from Uganda, and that gives you a little taste of their world and that seems to just be becoming a lot easier.
YK: I honestly think that that reading has probably been the biggest impact on my life. And I think I would be a very different person if I hadn’t been a reader, because I think sometimes, when we actually watch things, that there’s not much room for interpretation and also when you’re actually reading something, I think you encounter it almost as if you’re meeting a friend, and there’s – you’re a lot more open to the possibilities. And I remember, especially as a teen growing up and reading you know, all sorts of things, from you know people around the world, and it kind of really does open your mind to you know whole different roles. And I know even I quite like reading science fiction not fantasy, as much but definitely science fiction, and I think one of the great things – one of the great things about reading, is that yes it does kind of put you into someone else’s shoes, it gets you to actually consider things you never considered before, and I honestly think that is incredibly life-changing.
EC: Oh absolutely. Time and time again, studies have been done that say readers are more empathetic people, and can develop empathy more easily as children – it’s, it’s quite amazing.
YK: Yeah I think it is, that is, that is very good to hear. And I try and think about that when you know, I come across students who are really into their reading, are trying to encourage them no matter who they’re reading, and I also do remember there were quite a few teachers when I was growing up who were more than happy to support my little book habits. And I’m gonna say, that you know, just has a bit of a shout out for libraries, that I think the, without libraries, I don’t think it would have been possible for me to read as widely as I did. I remember being a very active member of two public libraries, and in my school library, and without that, I don’t know if I would have ever read as much as I did. And I remember I had a Saudi friend, when I was at uni, and the one thing that sort of struck him at the time, when we’re saying that 10-15 years ago, that when he came to Australia he goes: “ You know a lot of people, you know, sit and read on trains, in parks and cafes, they reading all the time”, and that’s not really something that he was used to in Saudi Arabia, but I can also say that about you know, Lebanon and a lot of different places around the world. And I think it’ll be actually sad if we lose that, because I think it does enrich people’s lives greatly.
EC: Yeah we’re so lucky to have the libraries that we do. I remember just going and getting 15 books and not even really looking at them on the school holidays. and then just going home and reading them and maybe I’d read some crazy science fiction book or some like non-fiction book about World War II but I just loved it.
YK: Yeah I think I do still love to spend a lot of time in libraries, and I remember when I went to Macquarie Union and at the time they had this library which did not have an automated retrieval system which I’m really against, but you could like literally walk up to the shelves and they were just like tons of books, and I just thought okay this is – if there really is a heaven, I would love for it to be structured around the library, and I’ll be quite happily lost in there.
EC: So in the book, there are parts that kind of engage with ideas of stereotypes, but not relying on them. Do you find stereotypes that can in our culture be turned into negative things, can be a useful source for writing?
YK: yeah, I think there can definitely be the start of interesting stories. I think that there are a couple that sort of come to mind. I think the one that sort of comes to mind a little bit is ‘Covered’, which is a very very short piece, it’s probably not maybe about half a page, and it’s about you know, a girl who decides to put on a scarf, and it has you know what everyone else is, just in like a single sentence, like you know her mum and dad, whoever, and they all have two cents to say about what she’s done. And I think it’s very, it’s very easy to sometimes fall into stereotypes. I think it’s a very natural thing to do, I think in terms of the way the brain works, we have this need to order the world by putting things into categories. I think that danger is when we can’t actually look past those stereotypes or actually question them, or ask questions about them or even be conscious of them. And I think they definitely can be a very important part of fiction. I think you were saying earlier about slightly different voices and diversity, and I think we’re sort of witnessing a very interesting time in terms of how people request through how about they like to talk about stereotypes as well, yeah.
EC: Cool. That was actually the other story that I was gonna get you to read. Those were my two choices, which is so funny.
YK: That was the one, I actually um, I did actually practice reading that one at the launch next week, that’s okay. At the launch next week, I think I may read that one, because it’s very short but it kind of gets to a particular point.
EC: It does, that one really, you know sort of burned into my brain, and that’s why I wrote that question, I was really thinking about that because you do look beyond it and you know stereotypes exist and that sucks, but fiction I think is a great place to kind of flip them on their head and and challenge them, I suppose.
YK: Yeah I think I was recently speaking to someone who’d read some of the stories, and the one that he had in mind was ‘Births, deaths and marriages’, which is a very little bit of a traumatic story but essentially a guy – and it says it in the first sentence, that after he killed his wife, he went to his cousin and so there are some very strong images in that particular story, but the question that he asked was: “Is this indicative of, I don’t know Arab culture something?”. And I remember looking at him and started to laugh actually, because I thought it was a very funny thing and I’m like: “What are you talking about?”, and he goes: “ Well you know, the men are overbearing, and the women are like this”, and I like: “Well, I don’t think so. I think the guy is obviously a bit of a monster and he’s a monster because he’s a monster, not because of his background”. And I sort of worried a little bit, that people might look to these stories and think that they’re an insight into how a particular group of people live, while I actually see them as fiction about people who live in a particular place, but I suppose just as a little exercise, a person – if they really felt like it, could actually take a couple of that story some other more heavy, heavy-hitting stories, and actually just swap the names and put Asian names, yeah I don’t know African names, and you just see what you come away with.
EC: Yeah that would, that would be interesting to do. Because I think you know like you say monsters the way they are because they are the way they are. It’s often you know, it’s in every culture, it’s in every kind of community, that people can be horrible sadly.
YK: Yeah and I think I’ve noticed that amongst um, maybe the new group of maybe Arab writers coming through, is a – this, there’s a lot of engaging with the way different communities, specifically the Arab community, has been represented. And I think that is very interesting, but I think at the end of the day, each person, each writer, each creative person has to be true to their vision, and it’s never about: “Hey I’m onto an entire story on the community and this is how it is”, because I think there’s as many different versions as there are people.
EC: Absolutely. My next question is sort of on that vein. So Western Sydney, there are heaps of amazing Arab writers coming out of at the moment and writers from many
many other cultures. What do you think it is about Western Sydney that produces such a wealth of writers and artists? Because it seems to be a non-stop flow at the moment!
YK: It’s taken a wild action to get there. I think they’ve been many waves of migrants and a lot of people have sort of moved into the area over a very, very long period of time, and now you start to see the first second generations sort of coming through. I think it takes a bit of time for that to actually – for that to actually happen. I think also there are maybe different, slightly different voices that might be a little bit different to, I suppose, like the other voices that have previously been represented. But yeah, I think it is actually a very exciting time, I think there’s quite a bit happening on the writing front. And hopefully there’ll be more interesting things to come as well.
EC: How could there not be! Everything coming out is just so amazing.
YK: I think yeah there are definitely some – there definitely are very interesting things and I’m glad that that is actually happening, and I assume that at some point say, makes 10, 20 years, there’ll be also different communities that are sort of represented, you know, it’s always changing. At the moment it’s you know, Western Sydney’s doing very, very interesting things, and I think down the track there’ll probably other places, it just keeps on shifting.
EC: Absolutely. I have one more question for you, and maybe it’s a tricky one, maybe it’s not. What impact do you hope your book will have on its readers?
YK: Umm, I hope that it makes people think a little bit about their lives, that is sort of inspires a little self-reflection about I suppose, their own lives, and how they relate to other people and their relationships with other people. I think a lot of those stories are incredibly personal and not necessarily in a very obvious way. The one that is called ‘Fatima’ which is dedicated to my friend Tolay, that one was actually very much inspired by her grandmother who used to say to us: “I can tell that you two are going to be friends for life”. And when her grandmother passed away a couple years ago, I was thinking Tolay’s birthday was just straight after that, and I thought: “Ok well, what am I going to get her, you know concerning this whole thing has happened?”. And I actually printed off those stories, and I go – said to her: “There’s a specific one in there I really want you to read, and I hope that kind of captures you know, how important you are to me as a friend”. And so I think there are a lot of very personal details in those stories and I just hope that people sort of do think a little bit about their own lives, their relationships with people, and also I suppose, what it means to be human and that you know, while on very obvious outward you know, in terms of people’s appearances and whatever, that we might actually be quite different. I think they’re very human stories and I hope that people remember that we’re all human and we’ll quite similar.
EC: Well I think that’s a lovely message to take away from the book, and definitely one that I did.
YK: Well I’m glad to hear that, I’m glad to hear that. Because I know there are a couple of my colleagues who have actually read them and one gentleman read ‘Homing’, and he said his mother I think, came out from Ireland, and I just sort of realised now, that how hard it would have actually been for her to actually move to a new country, and you know there’s you know, there’s a whole bunch of issues and difficulties that go with that. And so I do hope that people kind of you know, think about it own lives and think about you know, that it’s not necessarily these aren’t actually the stories all necessarily a community or you know a whole bunch of Arab people living west of Sydney, and they actually do see them as very human stories.
EC: Absolutely. Thank you so much for talking to me today Yumna, it’s been lovely chatting with you and about your wonderful book The House of Youssef, which is out by Giramondo.
YK: Thank you very much Ellen.
MD: That was the September First Book Club edition of Kill Your Darlings podcast. Our next episode, you’ll hear from a few of us chatting about Content, The Testaments and the Kill Your Darlings website’s 10 year anniversary. While you’re waiting for that to drop, we’d recommend picking up a copy of our very first book – New Australian Fiction 2019 is out right now. So pop into your local bookstore where, if they don’t have it, they’ll be happy to order it in. We’d love you to join us at the book’s Melbourne or Sydney launches, so check out our Facebook for dates and times over the next fortnight. If you prefer commentary, essays, memoir and more, that’s all there on the Kill Your Darlings website, so don’t forget to check it out and subscribe if you haven’t already. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our 10 year anniversary. See you next time!